The 80s were an excellent decade for filmmaking. After the structural and technological experimentation of the 70s, the great 80s filmmakers- George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and John Carpenter, to name a few- were able to focus their craft and turn out some of the most widely beloved films in history. Over thirty years later, there are still dozens of films from the 80s that are routinely placed in “must watch” and “best of” lists. But nothing is perfect, and even the best movies can have some pretty abysmal characters within. Looking back, a lot of characters in the 80s were not quite the heroes or innocent sidekicks we thought they were. Whether it’s due to shifting political climate, changes in cultural concepts of heroism, or that we were just too blinded by cool special effects at the time to notice, some pretty bad characters have been labeled as the good guys. Time to change that. Here are ten of the worst characters from 80s movies.
10 James Dalton – Road House
It pains me to say it, but Patrick Swayze’s James Dalton, the protagonist in 1989’s action-brawler Road House, is just walking, talking, high-kicking nonsense. Dalton makes the list because of sheer unbelievability. Though Swayze performs admirably as the character, it’s the character himself who sinks the oily, neon-lit ship.
James Dalton is a cooler, or as everyone else on planet Earth would say, a bouncer. Somehow he’s become famous for bouncing, which I guess means his bar has the fewest unwanted guests? Even though zero unwanted guests is the average number for any establishment at any given time? Anyways, he’s become such an outstanding bouncer by studying tai chi, meditation, and philosophy, apparently. But despite his enlightenment, he still refuses to wear practical, non-bulge-highlighting clothing or drive a car that isn’t a giant phallic substitute. To top that off, his transcendence melts away the instant he’s threatened, causing him to rip out people’s throats with his bare hand. Seriously, he did that. Left an open, bleeding hole in a guy’s neck and everything. Dalton is a man of many faces, and they all belong in different movies.
9 Long Duk Dong – Sixteen Candles
Long Duk Dong makes the list for being cruelly insulting to an entire continent, even for his time. Yes, Sixteen candles came out back in 1984, but by then it was well-known that crapping all over an entire culture was a no-no. “The Donger” as he calls himself, exhibits essentially every Asian stereotype writer/director John Hughes could think of, including being accompanied by a gong hit every time he came on screen.
The character was widely criticized immediately following the film’s release by several high-profile groups, but their concerns were shrugged off by John Hughes and Universal Pictures. Yet criticism remains to this day; even star Molly Ringwald recently reflected that the character, “is a grotesque stereotype.” What began as an ignorant attempt to get cheap laughs has since become an enduring symbol of insensitivity, earning The Donger a spot on the worst list.
8 Howard the Duck – Howard the Duck
There’s no controversy here. Howard the Duck is one of the single worst movies ever made. Even diehard Marvel comics nerds (maybe especially diehard Marvel comics nerds) can find little to like about this two-hour piece of flaming duck crap. The movie tries to make Howard the Duck a snarky, wise-cracking anti-hero ala Ferris Bueller (see below), but only managed to force a few half-assed duck puns and phone in a character arc (/motivation/backstory/personality, etc.), before they roll credits. There is seriously nothing in this movie to love, unless you are into human-on-anthropomorphic-bird relationships, in which case: good on you, not here to judge.
7 Lewis Skolnick – Revenge of the Nerds
This is another case of behaviors aging poorly, but unlike the overt mockery that is Long Duk Dong, this one is insidious and creepy. Revenge of the Nerds is a good movie, for the most part. It did the world a good deed by helping to shift the typical movie hero from square-jawed jock a**holes to relatable, clever underdogs. But for all the respect it gives to misfits, it very pointedly disrespects women.
The nerd girls are publicly called pigs by a whole fraternity; the movie’s heroes break and enter into a female dorm, watch them undress, then steal their underwear; and to top it off, our main protagonist Lewis Skolnick decides to win over the popular girl’s heart by… raping her. That’s the actual climax of the film. We’re supposed to laugh and cheer at that. Pretty hard to root for the underdog when they’re a cruel sociopath.
6 Ferris Bueller – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“You can never go too far.” -Ferris Bueller, 1986. Yes, you can, Ferris. And only insane people think that, Ferris. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is 103 minutes of a privileged, conniving, scheming, lying, narcissistic, manipulative, bullying, ungrateful, compassionless little jerk taking advantage of everyone that cares about him. The casualties of his campaign of exploitation include his best ‘friend’ Cameron, his ‘girlfriend’ Sloane, his high school dean, the school’s secretary, a Ferrari 250 GT California, his sister, his mother, his father, and worst of all the real Abe Froman, Sausage King of Chicago.
5 All the Ghostbusters – Ghostbusters
Another painful admission for me: the Ghostbusters are just not good guys. Yes, they saved New York twice, but in doing so they played god, not just with spirits but with human lives. For one thing, the guys punish every ghost they encounter with eternal prison. Eternal. Prison. Not just for the big bads like Vigo and Gozer, no every ghost gets the same infinitely harsh deal. Even if one ‘Buster just happens to see an innocent murder-victim ghost floating by on her unfinished business of finding her killer- BOOM: eternal prison in a box.
And, in Spengler’s own words, the four untrained ‘Busters carry unstable nuclear reactors on their backs. One of the film’s supposed villains, an EPA inspector, correctly determines this and tries to regulate these portable atom bombs, but the four jerks with no training and too much confidence shut him down and ridicule him. And really, if your film’s protagonists are chiefly in conflict with the EPA? Maybe they’re not the best people.
4 Daniel LaRusso – The Karate Kid
It’s impossible to make this point better than Barney Stinson already has, but Daniel LaRusso is not the real Karate Kid. Johnny Lawrence is, by almost any metric, the protagonist in that story. Lawrence grew up without knowing his father and abused by his stepfather. He took up karate as a way to regain his agency and become his own person. He poured his heart and soul into his craft but even then lost early in his first tournament. His steadfast determination caused him to double down on his training, and he eventually became the best fighter in the city, and in doing so moved beyond his fear and loathing for his step-father. Hero’s journey completed. Enter Daniel LaRusso, who bullies Lawrence and settles all of their disputes with violence instead of getting to know the tortured soul that Lawrence hides. Then LaRusso steals the championship from Lawrence with an illegal face kick, in what has to be one of cinema’s greatest tragedies.
3 Everyone – Weekend at Bernie’s
This goes without saying: failing to report a death, tampering with the body, and disturbing a crime scene are bad ideas. But dressing the body up, puppeting it for days, and even letting someone have sex with it without telling them… that’s another level. Larry and Richard, the supposed protagonists of Weekend at Bernie’s, are creepy, selfish monsters. But they’re not alone. The rest of the cast are either vapid, coke-addled partiers or members of the mob. So really, no one comes out of that movie looking squeaky clean. I give Weekend at Bernie’s two decomposing-thumbs-puppeted-with-string’s down.
2 Doc Brown – Back to the Future
Imagine you’re a parent (say, Lorraine McFly) and your son (Marty) tells you that he spends all his free time hanging out with an 80-year-old man (Doc Brown). Moreover, this old man is a failed nuclear physicist and regularly has your son help him test his experimental new nuclear technology. Even more, the old man has dealings with Libyan terrorists. Still more, the old man thinks your son is the perfect candidate to test the completely unfounded, unregulated, unknown science of time travel. How would you feel about this situation between the old man and your son? In this case, as Lorraine, you would probably feel fine, because that way the younger version of you gets to have sex with your son in 1955. This movie is messed up.
1 The Ewoks – Return of the Jedi
Some Star Wars fans love the Ewoks, some hate them. The debate has raged on for over 30 years with no end in sight. So let’s end it: the Ewoks are garbage characters. The original Star Wars trilogy is an unbelievably mixed bag of good and bad film components. On the one hand, the movies brought sci-fi to the mainstream, revolutionized special effects, and are each a detailed love letter to Joseph Campbell’s treatises on comparative mythology. On the other hand: Ewoks.
The end of Return of the Jedi was a cathartic climax to an adventure a decade in the making, and scenes like those in Palpatine’s chambers crackle with emotionality and high-stakes drama. Yet for some reason (toys), George Lucas chose to alternate those scenes with long, slapstick sequences of Ewoks fumbling their way through the forest (because of toys). The intense anxiety of Darth Vader choosing between letting his only son die and killing his mentor is sandwiched between shots of fat, fuzzy forest beavers pawing at Stormtroopers (to sell toys). Lando and Ackbar’s desperate final assault on the second Death Star is thrilling but cuts to some hairy, bucktoothed tater-tots slapping AT-ST’s with their grubby hands (which sold more toys). I just wish I could figure out why (I want to go buy toys).